Well Mr. Premier, it feels like summer’s over and I’m looking forward to the excitement that comes with the fall session of the Provincial Legislature. Overall, it seems aside from that photo op at the new bridge over Kicking Horse Canyon, you had a quiet summer. Nice bridge. Expensive at $130 million. I appreciate that the feds kicked in $62.5 and that the rest was from BC government coffers. I’m wondering if you’d consider a similar photo op at the Gabriola ferry the next time that the fares increase – maybe not as politically gratifying and opportunistic as the new bridge, but I know we’d appreciate it.
Sorry to be so obsessive, but this BC Ferries thing just kept riding the waves of my consciousness and I once again find myself diving into the deep, dark and dangerous waters of trying to navigate through the decisions of this semi-independent, no longer accountable to the public corporation, you and your government created in April 2003 via the Coastal Ferry Act. As the BC Ferries site states, this act “transformed BC Ferries from a Crown corporation into an independent, commercial organization under the Company Act. As far as governance and accountability, the site further notes that at the same time “the Province of British Columbia established the B.C. Ferry Authority, an independent, no-share capital corporation that holds the single issued voting share of the new British Columbia Ferry Services Inc., which was also established in April to reform the delivery of ferry transportation services in B.C. The Authority appoints the Board of Directors of British Columbia Ferry Services Inc. By its structure, the Authority ensures the operations of BC Ferries are independent from the provincial government.”
Now all this is very nice and sounds like a bastion of corporate self-regulatory accountability without having to defer to the whims of the current government or, consequently, the concerns of the citizens of BC. I don’t recall any public discussion about this decision nor do I recall any kind of plebiscite or even informal survey regarding the changes to this essential service. And it’s not like this is a “let’s try it for a few years and see if it works” kind of approach. This contract is a binding 60 year agreement, with five year performance terms to review the success of the corporation’s operation. The fares and service levels of the corporation are regulated by the Ferry Commissioner. The Commission operates under six principles, none of which address the affordability of the service to the public and the last of which states: “the designated ferry routes are to move towards a greater reliance on a user pay system so as to reduce, over time, the service fee contributions by the government.” Ultimately what this seems to enshrine is the fact that BC Ferries no longer has any real accountability to the people of BC. (It also seems to indicate that the government has no real – or at least severely reduced - responsibility for the decisions made by BC Ferries. This is the crux of my concern. The primary goal of any corporation is to provide a service and generate profits. Because BC Ferries to all intent and purpose holds a monopoly in this service, there is no real alternative and ultimately no real control on the fare increases that the corporation can charge. A corporation will tell you that “the market” will ultimately provide control, but this statement is essentially untenable in a monopoly situation.
In March 30, 2007, the Commissioner in his report stated: “We have no statutory or contractual duty to consider affordability of the fare-paying travelers, or the broad social and economic impacts on communities when making our decisions.” Place this statement beside that of Gibsons’ Mayor Barry Janyk who in June, 2007, in a letter to you backed by his Council stated: “I can affirm absolutely that the rapid increase to ferry fares is having an insidious and crippling effect particularly on rural communities on the Island and mainland coast. Should this trend continue I can unequivocally state it will lead to social and economic stresses that may be irreversible. You must find a way to address the galloping increase in ferry fares if our coastal communities are to thrive, let alone survive.”
Well Mr. Premier, from what I’m reading about the upcoming increase in ferry prices, I can only assume you have little interest in the social and economic impacts that continually rising ferry prices will have on the Gulf Islands and the other areas that depend completely on the services provided by BC Ferries. You have been remarkably silent on this issue.
In a letter to me on June 1, 2007, Minister Kevin Falcon wrote: “The health and vibrancy of B.C.'s island and coastal communities depend on an affordable ferry service. That's why I've made sure the provincial government's commitment to these ferry services remains substantial.” He further stated: “The independent British Columbia Ferry Commissioner reviews BC Ferries' spending to make sure that any proposed ferry rate increases are justified. The commissioner concluded that a fare increase is justified and BC Ferries' costs are reasonable.”
I suspect that those of us who rely on the ferry service to get to work and to appointments might struggle with Mr. Falcon’s concept of reasonable and justified. As I understand it from the BC Ferry Commission’s web site, the only input that the public has regarding the operations of BC Ferries is through Ferry Advisory Committees or direct communication with elected officials. However, this latter seems to be relatively non-productive as the very Act that formed the Corporation was intended to “ensure the operations of BC Ferries are independent from the provincial government.” So it seems we are left with advisory committees and answering occasional, on-board surveys.
Mr. Premier, why I wonder, does this whole process remind me of a corporate maze with no way out?
Hope you enjoyed your summer. Did you by chance travel by ferry?
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